Book Review – Thunderstruck by Erik Larson

thunderstruck - book coverHaving read and enjoyed so many of Erik Larson’s books in the past, I eagerly took up Thunderstruck though I had no real knowledge of the underlying subject matter—the development of trans-Atlantic wireless telegraphy and the 1910 Cellar Murder in London. Given his skill at weaving together seemingly disparate narratives elsewhere, I was eager to see how he managed to connect these two historical threads and while he managed to do so, it wasn’t as compelling as I would have hoped though it is a remarkable and effective juxtaposition.

Guglielmo Marconi took a concept that British scientist Oliver Lodge had lectured about and spent decades experimenting with it and developing a system of wireless telegraphy from it. With no formal scientific education—and little true understanding or interest in the science behind it—he becomes the epitome of “trial and error” invention. After he moved from Italy to England with the idea of patenting, marketing, and expanding his invention that he started clashing with the British scientists and their established way of doing things—in large part because he was rather socially obtuse. The politics of science, invention, and underlying copyrights helped drive his obsessive need to demonstrate his superiority and relevance, culminating in his determination to transmit wireless messages across the Atlantic ocean.

Juxtaposed against this biographical look at Marconi’s development of wireless telegraphy, Larson lays out the history of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen and his second wife, Cara. Though his medical background stemmed from early homeopathy, he spent most of his professional life making and selling pharmaceuticals in the industry’s formative (and unregulated) years. His wife longed for the attention and glamor of the stage and was a domineering personality where he struck most who met him as submissive and kind. Living in London for some time, his wife’s friends became concerned when she apparently up and left for the United States only for her husband to later tell them he’d had word of her death overseas. Unconvinced, his wife’s friends brought their concerns to Scotland Yard and trigger an investigation that yields disturbing answers.

Published just a few years after The Devil in the White City, Thunderstruck mirrors the narrative structure of his earlier work—detailing the struggles of innovation and creation with the life and crimes of a murderer, alternating between the two until they overlap. For Thunderstruck, I’d almost argue that the culmination is more satisfying—it is Marconi’s wireless telegraphy that aids most effectively in tracing Crippen while also allowing the chase and arrest to become public spectacle. I just wish that the development of wireless telegraphy had been more interesting in and of itself the way the creation of the Chicago World’s Fair was in The Devil in the White City. But Marconi’s abrasive and difficult personality made reading his portions of the narrative a chore. Of course, seeing the way his personality chaffed against the other notable men in his field at the time provides an effective contrast to Crippen. Citing the multitude of interviews following his arrest for the murder and mutilation of his wife, many thought he couldn’t possibly have committed such a crime in large part because he was too meek and thoughtful and nice. The social impressions left by these two men demonstrate a lot about the impact of public opinion and the lengths to which social niceties and presentation of self factor into perception.

Though the climactic confrontation in the final fifty or sixty pages is impressive, the narrative leading up to it felt largely flat. The portions of narrative about Crippen and his wife end up feeling repetitive as they’re forced to overlap with Marconi’s developments over a larger span of time. The two narratives simply don’t line up against each other as cohesively as the two in The Devil in the White City did. My personal preferences are probably a large factor as well when it comes to the Marconi narrative. While the details of what he did and was trying to do are thorough and specific, since Marconi focused little on the underlying science the story of his efforts is a bit hollow as well—and the back and forth between him and his competition/opposition shows just how petty and childish all parties involved were capable of being. There are small tangential narrative threads related to the mysticism of séances and the supernatural as well as the rising tensions between Britain and Germany that make appear briefly in the Marconi sections of the book, but they aren’t given consistent enough focus to make a more serious impact.

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